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Leticia
June 4th
5:30 a.m.

Dear Bunny,

Sitting here very quietly writing in a fairly dark hotel room while Betty and Lupe sleep — the three of us have been sharing #203 at the Hotel Anaconda for 3 nights, and of course I get up earliest. Outside in the main street of Leticia that our concrete balcony gives onto, only the sound of occasional flocks of small black parrots flying by: last night, tho', a teachers' demonstration (surprise).

Leticia is an odd kind of place. In the Peruvian border wars of the 1930's, somehow Colombia acquired the rather small stretch of Amazon frontage you now see in the atlas; everything used to be Peruvian. Leticia was the name of the wife of its Peruvian founder. Population supposedly 30,000; Puerto Alegria on the southern shore in Peru said to be quite small, say 2000. In fact, I think Leticia is smaller by quite a bit, especially if you exclude the various military camps. The Colombian Army occasionally marches through the town, squads of 8, four on either side of the road. Signs in various places mention "El Amazonas, Ribera Colombiana".

The town itself reminds me a lot of Niameya in greener. Two parallel main streets, one more official, one more commercial; cream-painted concrete, paved streets, traffic a fifty-fifty mix of mobilettes/motorcycles and cars. The hotel is on the official one. Across the street from our window, a public garden, heading down to dilapidation: square beds of grass surrounded by calf-high walls of cream concrete; two or three small (bottlebrush?) trees, a very sad looking black dog always sitting in the same place. On the other side of the square, a bandshell and a collection of low warehouses and the river.

Cross-streets about six in the center — the center peters out into roads leading to the airport in one direction about a mile away, to the Brazilian border in the other, probably closer — two of the cross-streets down to the river are a rather squalid outdoors market, mostly the day's catch on plastic sheeting on the ground, ramshackle stalls down the center of the street with space in between for an open sewer of a rivulet; as you move back from the river towards Official Avenue, market stalls give way to rather neat little wooden booths each with one man and a pocket calculator, offering to exchange dollars, cruzados and soles to cover the local borders and everyone's border with the United States — all competitors, I suppose an ideal free market.

On arriving in Leticia the day before yesterday, we were told to be ready for a small boat ride to a lake about 2 km. off, at 4:00 p.m. We did what we were told (Betty arranged this, a good idea it was too, the hotel serves also as a ground operator and contracts with boats and guides) and were accompanied by our guide, a young man named 'Juan' to us, but Pedro to at least one local fish seller, a coffee-colored rather tall slightly plump young man who in the States would be called black, but in fact looking rather Samoan — down to the river thru the fish-and-open‑sewer market bordered by its little cream-colored concrete shops selling clothing, cooking utensils, perfume, lanterns, fuel, cordage, sacks of beans and flour, and the other needs of a small port.

We're in low tourist season (the utter peak, in August, apparently sees around 200 non-Colombians in any given day): there seem to be about 3 others here now. So the Anaconda's guide we had for the three of us thruout. The fish street eases in to the water, about 15 boats all told, a sort of catwalk to one side leading to a pontoon café with more canoes and boats tethered to it or sidled up to it rather I think. Our boat, about 35 feet long, bright yellow with mecanopsis-colored trim, amidships 8 feet or so of plaited palm barrel-vaulting covered with blue plastic sheeting. Canoe-shaped, little benches under the shelter, 3 or 4 structural ties from side to side serving as additional seating. At the stern, our motorista, the young man handling the outboard motor and steering.

Our initiation tour was of a so‑called lake with an unpronounceable name, we putt-putted out in a very leisurely way, went upstream hugging the northern bank of the river; although "bank" is misleading, since at the edge of the water there is no land, but rather floating mats, often quite extensive, of crabgrass-colored graminaceae, large, coarse, what you would call eighteen inches tall, called gramalote; and/or trees with their roots far below the water.

Possibly the lakes are lakes, and they appear as such on the maps, but they seem to communicate with other water elsewhere everywhere. On the other hand, the surface of the water is like oil, most unusual, I'd never observed water to behave that way anywhere else, including here on the main river. Water black.

Don't imagine any animal life. Haven't seen other than in the zoo any animal down to a lizard even, saving birds, an occasional insect, or fish and the latter quite dead q.v. supra. Water and vegetation, very occasionally a thatched hut either on stilts or on pontoons: huts about the size of our dining-room, one-storey altho' did see one or two larger and even one job with two storeys and colored green carpets hanging out the windows showing every sign of suburban embourgeoisissement.

[image ALT: A small patch of concrete walk against a wall, with a bicycle, a medium-size flowering plant in a concrete planter, and a mat, folded in half, bearing the name of the Hotel Anaconda, forms a backdrop for a bird about 60 cm long, lying down rather splayed out with its feet folded up under it.]

One of the other guests at the hotel, whom we called Maria-Celeste.
She's fine by the way: ambling over a minute before to make herself comfortable.

Much happiness to see one plant I knew — I don't recognise even the grass here — polygonum it was, and nice too, of the white cylindrical parkbenchia type and I saw the knots clearly, saw about five of them at different times in some floating mat of gramalote or other. Small white egrets peer out of these mats occasionally, quite unperturbed at passage of outboard motor and cargo of 3 American turistas.

This is hardly either the deep tropical jungle, rather I think semi-jungle; near Leticia and along the river some clearing, on a purely local scale, i.e., enough for a hut or a small plot; altho' can't quite figure out what anyone grows — the harvests mentioned are in fact gathering of fruit from large wild trees —

Ten-year flooding currently: the river is 18 meters above its normal level, and thus about 30m deep, not 10m as usual.

The temperatures here have been very pleasant, 24‑27°C. On the boat, perfectly agreeable, with cool breeze. Since I didn't wear a topiaryº — unlike Betty who brought an absurd thing that was quite exactly, however, what she needed — I've added another layer of reddish-brown to the complection.º No sunburn, just a slight pull to the skin —

Back at the hotel after our hour and a half on the water, found airconditioning in our room worked nicely, which was a big surprise because the machine didn't look promising as we came in from the airport. The room was spotless and so was the large bathroom — cold water only out of a bare pipe for the shower, but in fact that's exactly what you want here. Washed up and ate an OK dinner of various fried fish, mine more adventurous I a gamitana, or piece of one, with large hollow bones. At about nine-thirty or ten, a half-hour dip in the hotel pool, under a nearly full moon in what to us is a very odd place, almost due vertical —

Yesterday June 3rd was the day of the excursion to see 2 Indian settlements about 40 km upriver. At 8:50 we were signing insurance papers and donning midcalf rubber boots, by nine we were back on our boat heading NW. This time we went on the actual Amazon about an hour and a half, the water more normal, not oily, little waves from some light wind I guess, in color tamarind in hue or Boston coffee or in between, from faraway glancing light purplish, from close up when unrippled almost bright orange. Imagine the valley of St. Bertrand full of water, then about 30 times same; and in fact usually an apparent bank or the other was an island, with more Amazon behind it; width about 4 mi.?

Individual trees and plants nothing much, excepting the beautiful palmate-leaved1 oak-shaped bright green mango tree; a dead-looking tall kind with whitish bark and various bromeliads in clumps on the horizontal branches plus shoebag-shaped nests, hanging absurdly from the ends of branches, of a bird called the mochilón; in fact not dead, but among the few trees that lose their leaves like ours. Very rare palms; a drink called açai, nonfermented, from them. Not many flowers, and those almost always vines; most vines epiphytes start at the top of 50-foot trees, drape downwards.

The river itself is fairly alive with plants: islands form easily, last a few years, then sink in storms; flotsam collects also and seems to stay alive as it floats hundreds of miles downriver; the tops of land shrubs and trees peek up above the swollen water at the edges. People don't own land, they just go out and farm or harvest an area, building little thatched shacks, staying a few months or years, then moving on. Not a fish in sight. Crocodiles have moved inland to the marshy areas they like, currently nowhere near the river, so saw none. Occasional panic of parrots.

After about 35 km of this, we went up a small creek where I got to confirm the polygonum from close up, into an area of still black water, little yellow nympheaceae, and 120‑foot baobabs I think, looking like what I knew in the Niger anyhow, to an Indian village, a people called the Yaguas, who have nothing much to offer and put on grass skirts, which they now wear only for tourists, with hordes of children ages 0 to 9 begging for candy, which, advised, we had. We were greeted by a few young men who broke open some annatto fruits and painted our faces bright red and then we theirs, you would have been quite uncomfortable — then we walked up a block-long avenue of thatched huts on stilts to a school, then back, while they badgered us to buy blow-guns and syrinxes, which I duly did (they knew how to use both, so some authenticity there, but frankly the kids, some of them, were in bad shape — conjunctivitis, distended stomachs, although no skin diseases — and we felt sorry for them, it was rather sad; and the vastly exaggerated reports of floods have left them tourist- and income-less for several months now.)


[image ALT: Some dugouts moored at a small wooden wharf in a lagoon with a 20‑meter-tall tree in the middle distance. It is the landing dock at a Tikuna village near Leticia in the Colombian Amazon.]

The landing dock at the Tikuna village. Notice the characteristic sock-shaped nests of the mochilón hanging from the tree branches.

Second comunidad, the Ticunas (Leticia spelling), much less sad, definitely a place where people worked and had money, proportion of children much more normal, adults in rather nice stilt-mounted wood plank huts with large pleasant windows, working at painting animals on a matted dried pith (of the ojé tree) which they pull off, dry, pound themselves also, extracting all the pigments locally (a striking bright yellow from a root, red from annatto, etc.). Formerly, this rough bark (not a true paper, as Dard Hunter would say) was fashioned into robes down to the ground, topped by mask, with long dangling dongs out of cordage in the appropriate place — saw a couple, ugly things, not good sellers, but certainly authentic, hidden away in the back of a store in Leticia; now they make rectangular pictures, as art, varying degrees of Western influence, some of them rather handsome, called llanchamas/chanchamasb depending on who you to talk to (got a couple).

Anyway, this 2d community — "more organized" is the recurring comment about them back in Leticia — as a result is richer and less dependent; I saw at least four cows in a village of some 18 houses leading up to the school at the top of the hill. Colombian flag and two of the cows sitting in front of the school house; inside (we were there at the lunch recess), blackboard, standard school chairs, a coat of arms of Colombia painted on a wall, an eight-foot-tall cross of two tree trunks propped up in a corner with a crown of thorns slung over the crossing of the armpiece — Children looked OK, a doctor visits once or twice a year; a large fiberglass vat to collect rainwater for the village, etc.

[image ALT: A gently sloping long hill with a dirt track leading up to the top, bordered by a few thatched huts. The scene is surrounded by palm trees and other tropical trees, and in the left foreground stands a barechested man wearing a long necklace of beads. It is a view of a Tikuna village near Leticia in the Colombian Amazon.]

A Tikuna village not far from Leticia.

From the Tikuna village (local spelling), we — Betty, Lupe and I, Juan Pedro, a Yagua in the lead, incongruously named Claudio, and a Tikuna bringing up the rear — went on an hour's nature walk thru some basically uncleared forest; saw a canoe half made near where it had been fashioned — involved fire, interestingly — being tempered a while before being used; also an ojé pith drying spot — very much a working forest. Our Claudio spotted a tarantula fleeing at our approach, tried to flush it out of a rotting stump by delving straight in with bare hands, grubbed out its baby instead, Betty and I for rather opposite reasons clamored he should leave it alone. A few flowers — none an orchid — a huge tree — rather hot and sweaty, almost no skeeters, they come out at night in fact. Lots of mud. 2 recognizable cruciferae, one with racemes the other with flowers like mountain mint, the crushed leaves smelled each different, one like lantana. An amaranthus rather like our own retroflexus, a couple of banana trees in bright red bloom — scarlet — otherwise totally unknown flora, zero fauna surely due to our noise. Forest smelled much like forests in Virginia, except very occasionally a whiff of some odd something.

Uneventful trip back to Leticia; since downstream, in the middle to take advantage of the current whereas on the way out hugging the edges where the current is less — a few short (5 minute) bouts of rather temperate rain separated by 20 minutes of sun — lunch of broiled fish and chicken, rice, potato and fried banana with motor off adrift in Amazon — a little surreal, frankly. Back around 3, will save description of local zoo for next letter — Hope this finds you well altho' I'm told mail takes 15 days I might already be back but I do hope you're OK and enjoying decent summer weather, looking forward to nice fixed house, and reading Ammian or doing something at least as enjoyable. [. . .]
B.


Note in the Letter:

1 high proportion of palmate species; also, many trees tiered, a space of bare trunk giving place to large horizontal outbranchings, then repeat —


Thayer's Notes:

a Niamey, capital of the Republic of the Niger: if you've visited the town recently — population 670,000 in 2010 — this will probably surprise you. But when I lived there in 1961‑62, Niamey had about 40,000 inhabitants and was rather sweet. Along with much of the rest of my childhood, the Niamey I remembered in 1993, and to which I was comparing Leticia, no longer exists.

b The authentic aboriginal word is probably zhanchama, where zh is not a sound officially to be found in Spanish. Thus ch- is an approximation, but ll- is very likely somewhat more interesting: a hypercorrection based on not pronouncing ll as zh as Argentinians do — so here a true pronunciation gets "corrected" to a wrong one out of genteelism.


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Page updated: 15 Mar 10